The night sky is more important and more detailed than many people realize. It affects the circadian rhythms of all species from humans, to sea turtles. Here in Colorado, Denverites can learn an appreciation for the stars by getting out and seeing the dark sky’s natural beauty. It’s easier than you thought and more rewarding than you ever could have imagined.
COVID-19 note: make sure to check with county rules and regulations before you go, as some areas may be closed or have new restrictions. Make sure to wear and bring a mask as well.
Light pollution in Denver makes stargazing in the city a little underwhelming. Sure, you could go stargazing— with everyone else— at Red Rocks. If you’re lucky, you might see a couple space specks, but to get the full experience you need to get away from city lights. Pretty straightforward, right?
Well, here are a few pointers you might not have thought about:
Print out a star chart.
The night sky rotates. As the earth moves, the planets and stars seem to change positions. The stars will be different depending on where you are in the world and what time of year it is, so check out this link here for an updated Colorado chart. The night sky becomes a lot more interesting when you know what you’re looking at.
“The night sky is changing throughout the year,” said Phillip Virden, an astronomer from Lake City, Colorado. “Spring, winter, fall, you have different constellations and different patterns. Learn the night sky. Enjoy the night sky. It’s free and your naked eye is the best thing you have.”
Get a red flashlight.
If you’re rummaging through your bag, your car or taking the time to analyze your star chart, your eyes will take a long time to readjust to the blackness. Eyes can adjust easier after seeing red light than after seeing white. If you’re a camping fiend — or just have a headlamp — many brands offer a red light setting. Several hardware stores sell different light bulbs. You might even be able to switch out a bulb in an old flashlight for an economic option.
Put your phone away.
This goes with the light thing again. The light emitted from your phone will make your eyes take forever to adjust. You might be tempted to pull up a star chart on your phone — gotta love technology — but for this excursion, old-school paper is the way to go.
You don’t need a telescope…yet.
“Telescopes can be very expensive. Instead of spending all of that money, get a pair of binoculars. They work amazingly. See if you like [astronomy] before going out and buying a telescope that might wind up unused in your attic,” Virden said.
For the best stargazing in Colorado, you’ll need to travel to the west side of the Continental Divide or south of Colorado Springs. This will get you far enough away from city lights and the majority of light pollution.
Colorado is fortunate enough — through plenty of effort and teamwork — to have several places with Dark Sky Certification including…
Dark Sky Certification is difficult to obtain and prestigious to hold. The guidelines include a commitment to preserving a natural dark sky, strict lighting rules for both city and private lights, provisions regarding where and when light can be used and more. If these stipulations seem a little overboard, you would be right. But they are in place for good reason.
Colorado has tons of places to check out the night sky — they just don’t have the certification. If you get anywhere near these places, you’re sure to see a great sky. You have options — feel free to take a midnight hike, pull over in the car or camp in a designated area nearby.
For starters, check out:
UFO Watchtower, San Luis Valley
Rocky Mountain National Park, near Grand Lake
Curecanti National Recreation Area, Gunnison
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Cortez
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Chimney Rock National Monument, Chimney Rock
Pawnee National Grassland
If you’re short on time — and are looking for something closer to home — take a look at:
“When someone visits an observatory, they will be able to see a planet like Saturn or Jupiter up close and personal through a telescope,” Virden said. “Many observatories have several telescopes set up so you can see additional things like deep sky objects like other galaxies. With the naked eye, another galaxy is just another bright speck in the sky. Through a telescope in an observatory, you’re able to see so much more.”
Some observatories — open to the public, on certain nights, for a small fee — in and around Denver include:
Most observatories in Colorado require memberships or are available only to students, for scientific purposes or privately. If you are looking into being more proactive in the astronomy field, check out the Denver Astronomical Society here.
Learn how to throw your own star party at Smokey Jack Observatory in Westcliffe here.
Observatories are not planetariums. Observatories are for real-time observations whereas planetariums show something similar to a movie.
Why are dark skies important?
“An unknown tip about stargazing, I’m afraid, is a negative,” Virden said. “It’s called light pollution. Eighty percent of North America cannot see the Milky Way Galaxy. And that is so sad because we don’t want to lose it. Many kids grow up only being able to see a few stars and the moon. There is a whole universe out there. If people could just be more aware of turning off their lights and being more conscious about it we could save it. Step out in your backyard and enjoy the night sky.”
Remember, even if you don’t make it one of these special spots, no matter where you are — don’t forget to look up.